Nasa’s robotic rover, Curiosity, is currently making its way across the 154km-wide Gale Crater on the surface of Mars. The rover – about the size of a small car – is intended to help Nasa scientists study the Martian climate and geology, as well as answer the question: could Mars have once supported life?
Curiosity has already sent back remarkable images of the Martian landscape. Here, then, is a strange kind of intimacy with the planet that has for centuries acted as the highest symbol of the unknown, alien place. So how did Mars acquire its unique cultural meaning?
• While Mars was known to ancient Egyptian astronomers, our modern conception began in 1877 when the Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli observed long, straight channels on the surface of the planet. These canali – mistranslated into English as “canals” – sparked a furore of speculation that Mars might once have hosted intelligent life. Go to The War of the Worlds by H G Wells for the highest example of that speculative literature, which was the fountainhead of the science-fiction genre.
• In July, 1965, the Mariner spacecraft sent the first pictures of the Martian surface back to Earth. Here was proof, then, that Mars was a desert planet, hostile to life. A new kind of Martian fiction emerged, best exemplified by Ray Bradbury’s sci-fi classic The Martian Chronicles, that yearned for a human colonisation of this barren landscape.
• Meanwhile, the British poet Craig Raine imagined an alien visitor to Earth in his A Martian Sends a Postcard Home, available to read in Collected Poems 1978-1999 (Picador, Dh143).
• We may not be living on Mars yet, but our picture of the Red Planet is now beyond anything Schiaparelli could have dreamt of. See Jim Bell’s Postcards from Mars for a visual tour courtesy of the 2004 Spirit rover mission.
• Meanwhile, Destination Mars: New Explorations of the Red Planet (Prometheus Books, Dh99) looks forward to the first manned mission to Mars, scheduled by Nasa for the 2030s.